Cristiano sat back, starting to fume. He really hadn’t wanted to rake up old memories of Elizabeth Forrester’s betrayal of his father, but Laurel was forcing his hand. ‘She was stealing from him, bella, no question.’
‘I admit it might have looked like that, but she didn’t mean it the way you—’
‘She was siphoning money from various accounts and putting it in an offshore account under a different name!’ Cristiano cut her off, his voice like the snick of a blade. ‘Are you actually defending her?’
‘Not defending,’ Laurel answered, a flush rising to her face. ‘I know she’s…’ She stopped and shook her head, clearly at a loss, because she couldn’t defend her mother even if she wanted to. Elizabeth Forrester was so clearly indefensible.
‘And what was that money for?’ Cristiano continued, relentless now. ‘The day when she left him for some toy boy? Considering her behaviour since then, it seems likely.’
Laurel’s face went pale again. ‘What do you know of my mother’s behaviour since then?’
‘Tonight was not the first time she has come into La Sirena.’ He didn’t make a point of following Elizabeth Forrester’s romantic entanglements, but he’d seen her enough times over the last ten years—usually on the arm of some puffed-up aristo, fawning, flirting and making Cristiano nauseous—to know that she lived by her wits and fading beauty. Every time he’d seen her he’d felt vindicated in telling his father about the private account he’d discovered ten years ago.
‘Tonight was the first time I came into La Sirena,’ Laurel said quietly. ‘Or had that escaped your notice?’
Cristiano stared at her, trying to decipher what she was really trying to say. That she was different from her mother? Or perhaps just more discreet. ‘So why did you?’ he asked. ‘Out of interest?’
He waited, bracing himself for some spun-out sob story about desperate times and hard circumstances. But she just pursed her lips and shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
And Cristiano told himself that was fine, because it didn’t. He wasn’t interested in getting to know Laurel, yet against his better judgment, and all common sense, he was curious. What had she been doing for the last ten years? Living the way her mother did? It was the utterly obvious assumption, and yet…
Something in him resisted that assumption, which was stupid as well as pointless. Laurel toyed with her fork and then pushed her plate away. ‘I’m sorry. I’m not hungry any more.’
‘You should eat.’ She was slender enough for a breath to blow her away. She just shook her head.
‘I… I think I’ll go to bed. It’s late and it’s been a very long day. A very long couple of days.’ She rose from the table, pausing uncertainly. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For the clothes and the food and the place to stay.’
As if he’d given it all to her out of the goodness of his heart. As if their arrangement, the one he still most definitely wanted, didn’t remain on the table, needing to be discussed. Cristiano rose too.
‘I’ll see you to your room.’
Her pupils flared. ‘That isn’t necessary.’
‘Oh, but I assure you,’ he answered softly, ‘It is.’
Laurel stared at him for a beat longer and then wordlessly turned from the room. Cristiano followed her to the door of his bedroom, where she hesitated, her back quivering with tension.
‘Where…where am I to sleep?’
‘There is a guest bedroom across the hall.’ He pushed open the door opposite his own. She turned to glance at him, and that was her mistake. Her breath came out in a rush as heat flared between them. Cristiano put his hand on her wrist, felt the leap of her pulse beneath his fingers. Laurel pressed her lips together.
‘Don’t, Cristiano,’ she whispered.
‘Don’t touch me.’
‘Don’t tempt you?’ He stroked the silky skin of her inner wrist with his thumb. ‘Is that what you mean?’ He ran his thumb gently down to her palm and then up to her inner elbow. Laurel remained frozen, her pulse hammering beneath his questing fingers. ‘Why deny what is between us, bella?’